Taste Of Thailand: Hungering For More

Opulence is what Sofitel Mumbai BKC is known for, while expansiveness is what its Pondichery Café is synonymous with. On our previous visits to Pondichery Café we rarely came across anything less than 50 odd dishes at its buffet counters. So, when we were told that the hotel had flown down Chef Naowarat Charoenwong, or Chef Nana, to host the ‘Taste of Thailand’ food festival, we expected another extensive gamut of Thai dishes to reign on the food counters of Pondichery Café.

Before we talk about the food festival held between 8th and 16th March, let’s tell you a little about Chef Nana. In the past eight years, she has worked in the Arma Thai Restaurant, Blue Ocean Restaurant, Red Snapper Restaurant and Chom Talay Restaurant across Bali and Krabi. And her specialty is – wait for it – Thai cuisine!

The good thing about Thai cuisine is that though it might still not be as mainstream as Chinese fare is in India, an increasing number of people have tried it, and a good percentage of them have liked it. Sadly, their experiences have been limited to Pad Thai noodles and Thai Green Curry. Chef Nana wanted to get Sofitel’s guests to some of the food that is popular in Krabi, a region she knows very well.

A FINE THAI EXPERIENCE

Walking into Pondichery Café, we were greeted by hostesses dressed in traditional Thai attire. Two dragon-faced traditional brass lamps glared at us from the entrance, while small rice paper parasols with Thai etchings adorned each table.

Chef Indrajit Saha, Executive Chef of Sofitel Mumbai BKC, gave us a lowdown about the food festival. That is when we noticed that the number of Thai dishes displayed was fairly limited, especially by Pondichery Café’s standing, which usually has myriad options for any food event.

Chef Naowarat Charoenwong with a plate of Pad Thai.  Photo by Kunal Khanna
Chef Naowarat Charoenwong with a plate of Pad Thai.
Photo by Kunal Khanna

Nestled amongst the colorful array of fruits and vegetables used in Thai cooking were two salads. The Yam Tua Poo, or the Wings Bean salad, was prettily displayed with some chopped boiled eggs on the rim of the salad plate while whole cashew nuts stood in sharp contrast to the dark salad. The wing beans, which Chef Nana apparently brought from Thailand, were blanched in coconut milk and then tossed in chili paste and palm sugar.

The Som Tam, a raw papaya salad, was lovely to look at – red cherry tomatoes, green beans and the light yellowish color of the shredded papaya simply tempt you to scoop it up. Chef Nana had thrown in some bird’s eye chillies to balance the tartness of the papaya and the combination worked well. The best part about it was that it’s perfectly suited for the calorie conscious.

How could any Thai festival not have the ubiquitous Pad Thai noodles? One of the most popular meal-on-the-go in Thailand, the noodles are traditionally tossed in a wide wok. However, Chef Nana quickly stir-fried the rice noodles with some shredded chicken and fresh vegetables on a flat griddle and we were happy to dig into this flavorful preparation.

LIMITED OPTIONS

Just like that, we moved to the main course. Of course, the European and Indian appetizers were very much present for us to partake in, but we decided to stick to all things Thai.

The Som Tam, a raw papaya salad, was lovely to look at  and tempted you to just scoop it up.
The Som Tam was lovely to look at and tempted you to just scoop it up.

The main course section too was very limited. There were two rice preparations, a regular steamed (Kao Sauy) version, while the other had fried with eggs and some spices (Kao Pad Kai). The latter is very bucolic and we are sure it is what folks in Thailand whip up when guests unexpectedly drop in.

There was just one fish-based dish, which was very surprising, because seafood hogs the limelight in any Thai meal. The Phad Talay Kratiem Prik Thai had batter-fried seafood tossed in garlic and black pepper sauce. What we liked about this dish, which could double up as an appetizer, was that the chef had thrown long stalks of green peppercorns while tossing it. In fact, Prik Thai means Thai pepper and Chef Indrajit informed us that it is a common practice to lob fresh green peppercorns into Thai dishes since they exude mild heat, unlike the Thai chilies that are apt to sear a hole in your gullet and gut.

The Phad Pak Boong Fai Dang is another common street food of Thailand. It’s a simple stir-fry of greens like spinach leaves or morning glory with soya sauce, and is often considered to be a poor man’s dish because these leaves are easily available throughout that country. Highly nutritious and rich in fiber, we would have preferred our version with some burnt garlic and little more chilies to tickle our taste buds.

Another famous Thai dish, Massaman Gai Curry, was also on the menu. One reason why Indians like Massaman curry is because it finds resonance with so many of our curries. The yellow gravy was fragrant, courtesy the bay leaves and lemongrass; it had a thick texture because of the paste of various nuts that went into it, and the coconut milk neutralized the fieriness of the chilly paste included.

For desserts, there was Beau Loy Sam See and Sang Ka Ya Fak Thong. The former had small rice balls in a coconut milk cream; while the latter was egg custard steamed into a whole pumpkin. We were more intrigued by the technique of cooking the custard so that it set and melded perfectly to the inner contours of the pumpkin, than its mild taste. Let’s just say, it is not everyone’s idea of pie. The Beau Loy Sam See is also a common street food in Thailand. The broth is not too sweet, while the rice balls aren’t too bland – but again, they might not tickle everyone’s sweet tooth.

The dishes at the Taste of Thailand food festival were plainspoken and simple – just the way traditional cuisine usually is. We expected fireworks in the spiciness department, but perhaps Sofitel chose to tone it down, keeping in mind that most of its guests might not appreciate the fieriness. However, to make a food festival really stand out, an establishment needs to offer diners more choice, which was lacking at Pondichery Café. And the reason we were surprised about the frugality of options is because this is Pondichery Café we are talking about – a place where the options abound to the point of numbing the mind. After all, variety is not just the spice of life, it is the life of any cuisine, too!

Images courtesy: Sofitel BKC Mumbai